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15-Minute Music Lesson on Dvořák and African American Spirituals

Today’s 15-Minute Music Lesson on Dvořák and African American Spirituals is an excerpt from the self-paced online course Music Appreciation of the Romantic Era at

(By the way, I tried to limit the lesson to 15 minutes, but there was too much goodness to share! Just play parts of the videos or leave some out if you don’t have more time. I recommend listening to the New World Symphony in the background while reading aloud, playing a game, cleaning, etc.)

15-Minute Music Lesson on Dvořák and African American Spirituals with a free printable pack #musiclessonsforkids #elementarymusic #musiceducation #musicteacher #homeschoolmusic #musicinourhomeschool

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) became the leading Czech composer after Smetana (whom we discussed in an earlier lesson). Dvořák was a master in nationalistic music, and in it you’ll experience the spirit of Bohemian folk songs and folk dances.

Dvořák grew up the son of a poor innkeeper and butcher. After working with his father, he left home at the age of 16 to go to the nearby city of Prague to study music. He sang and learned to play the violin, viola, piano, and organ. For a while, he played in an opera orchestra under Smetana’s direction. When he was 36, his compositions were discovered by Brahms and his fame grew.

In 1873, Dvořák began teaching at the Prague Conservatory and married Anna Cermak. He won the Austrian State Prize for his Symphony in E-flat in 1874. Dvořák became world-famous with his Slavonic Dances:

(If you’re keeping this lesson to just 15 minutes, only listen to a few minutes of this video.)

Dvořák in America

In 1892, Dvořák went to New York City where he worked for three years as the director of the National Conservatory of Music. He spent a summer with a community of Czechs in Spillville, Iowa, soaking up rural America.

Dvořák encouraged Americans to write nationalistic music. He became enthralled with the folk styles there, including songs of Native Americans and African American spirituals. The latter he learned about from his student Henry T. Burleigh (1866-1849), who was a black composer and baritone. Dvořák said spirituals were “a secure basis for a new national musical school. America can have her own music, a fine music growing up from her own soil and having its own character–the natural voice of a free and great nation.”

African American Spirituals

According to, spirituals are “a kind of religious song originated by African-Americans.” Spirituals are often written with freer rhythms and harmonies than most standard hymns. Many of them go back to the days of slavery, and they often speak of biblical stories of deliverance, such as the Exodus.

Several spirituals have become standard pieces of music for concert singers and choirs. “Gonna Lay Down My Burden,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In ” are all spirituals. Many spirituals were written and sung to teach about God, to encourage perseverance in the hardships that the singers were experiencing, and to remind about the promises of a better hope that was to come in heaven.

Listen to some spirituals here:

And here is one sung by Henry T. Burleigh himself, recorded in 1919:


The African American spiritual was the forerunner of American blues, jazz, and rock music. (Learn more about this music in the course 20th Century Music Appreciation.)

New World Symphony

Now, this next video shows, even more, the influence that these spirituals had on Dvořák and his New World Symphony which he wrote while living in the United States. (If you are watching this with younger children, be aware of a photo at 8:00 of a slave with scars on his back from whipping.)

Now, let’s listen to the amazing New World Symphony, Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, which Dvořák wrote in 1892. It’s one of the best-known symphonies of any composer:


“I should be glad if something occurred to me as a main idea that occurs to Dvořák only by the way.” –Johannes Brahms


Download a free 3-page Printable Pack to use with this 15-Minute Music Lesson:


Composer Sheet, Listen and Write (Tempo, Mood, Like it?, and Instruments/Voices), and Listen and Draw


15-Minute Music Lesson on Dvořák and African American Spirituals, with free printable pack, from Music in Our Homeschool Online Music Courses

If you enjoyed this free lesson, you’ll love the full music appreciation courses available at The lessons about Dvořák and African American Spirituals are found in Music Appreciation of the Romantic Era.

I’m doing 5 Days of 15-Minute Music Lessons this week. See them all here:

  1. 15-Minute Music Lesson of Music Inspired by Rivers and Seas
  2. 15-Minute Music Lesson on Dvorak and African American Spirituals
  3. 15-Minute Music Lesson on Nursery Rhymes
  4. 15-Minute Music Lesson on Music Inspired By Shakespeare
  5. 15-Minute Music Lesson on Music Inspired by Outer Space


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